Editors Note: This is the final installment of a four-part series on the Woodstock site in Bethel and plans for a performing arts center there. The first piece ran on June 7 and concerned the Gerry Foundation (which owns the site), while the second about the Woodstock Preservation Alliances efforts appeared on June 14. Last weeks article, which ran June 21, featured an interview with Town of Bethel government leaders.
By Dan Hust
BETHEL June 28, 2002 Talk to Bethel residents about the proposed performing arts center at the Woodstock site and you get a mixture of optimism and skepticism.
After all, these are Sullivan County people, and time has brought many a fast-talking developer who never came through on their grandiose ideas.
This is a show-me town, says Debbie Fallon, who runs the Bethel Woodstock Museum at the famous Vassmers General Store in Kauneonga Lake. Its just been 33 years of nothingness.
Well, not exactly nothing. Since the original festival occurred at Max Yasgurs farm field in 1969, there have been gatherings every year, with large crowds turning out for the 20th, 25th and 30th anniversaries.
Up until about the 27th one, however, people had been met with police, barricades, traffic jams, illegal drug use and even manure (an attempt by former owner June Gelish to dissuade visitors).
Then, in 1996, Liberty billionaire Alan Gerry purchased the 37.5-acre site and 1,300 surrounding acres. A few years later, he announced plans for a $40 million performing arts center there.
Like Fallon, however, folks around town are still waiting.
If I had one thing to say, remarks Scott Samuelson, the co-owner of the Bradstan Country Hotel in White Lake and the president of the Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce, Id say, Get started!
I just want him to start it, agrees Linda Vassmer, who mans the counter at the store made famous by her father, Art Mr. Woodstock Vassmer.
I havent seen anything going on, have you? says Don DeFazio, who runs a construction business and lives on Hurd Road less than a mile from the site.
I have my doubts, admits his wife, Ruth. Were all talking speculatively.
I think its long overdue, adds Jeryl Abramson, whos Route 17B property abuts Gerrys and has hosted an informal gathering of Woodstock enthusiasts every August for several years. It should be happening already!
Even a resident of the tiny hamlet of Bethel proper, who wished to remain anonymous, isnt sure whats coming questioning the reporter about the veracity of Gerrys claims and whether hell ever see the project through.
And yet, without exception or reservation, the entire group says Gerrys plan for the site is one of the best things that could ever happen in the region.
Im not opposed to it, remarks the anonymous Bethel resident.
I think its going to be nothing but positive for the whole community, adds Abramson.
It will be cultural. It will be nice, says Ruth DeFazio. We need a little culture up here.
Whatever Alan Gerry does, he does a good job, agrees Don.
Knowing what Alan Gerry does, it will be the right thing, seconds Samuelson. Im totally in favor of it.
It will be a world-class situation, says Samuelsons partner, Ed Dudek.
I think its a very good thing, says Vassmer. I keep a positive attitude about it.
I think Alan Gerry is a man of his word, comments Fallon. Id just like to see it in his and our lifetime.
If approval from Bethels planning and town boards comes through at the end of August, its possible Fallon and company could be seeing a groundbreaking either later this year or next spring. Gerry Foundation officials have tentatively worked out a deal with the New York Philharmonic to open the centers first season, possibly in 2004.
Until then, they wait, but theres no end of conversation about it.
Ruth DeFazio has lived on Hurd Road for 23 years and can tell stories about most of the anniversaries. (Her to-be-husband built the house six months before the original Woodstock, but she was married to someone else and working in Wurtsboro at the time.)
And, sitting next to the famous photograph of a couple embracing under a blanket at the site in 1969, DeFazio is adamant that you cant make that kind of magic again.
Theres only one Woodstock, she says inside a cool screened porch on a muggy June day. [The center] will be nice, but it will be managed. Its not the same.
The DeFazios are one of only three families that still own property along Hurd Road between Route 17B and the festival site. Ruth says Gerrys people real estate agents who tended not to make their association with the project very clear made offers about four years ago. The DeFazios made a counter-offer, but neither side accepted any of them.
Not that either is complaining. Gerry Foundation spokesperson Glenn Pontier has said that the foundation plans on being a good neighbor to whomever sticks around, and Ruth DeFazio very much enjoys being near the center of activity.
The anniversaries were fabulous. I loved it, she says without hesitation. People came walking up this road from Africa, Alaska, South America. I had the Associated Press, the New York Times all parked in my driveway.
Unlike other residents, she never had a problem with any visitors, even during the latest series of concerts put on by the Gerry Foundation, called A Day in the Garden.
D.I.G. was OK. It was very well-managed, she says. It was fine but it wasnt Woodstock.
Woodstock was free, she adds. This is not free. Its not bad its just a different situation now.
Her only concern?
If this becomes like New York City, I dont want to live here, she remarks. Then you lose the country. But I dont think Alan Gerry is going to do that.
(Plans call for between 5,000-7,000 people for a regular concert at the center, and up to 30,000 for special events during the initial summer-only seasons.)
What about what some view as the potential loss of the site itself? About 60 people have so far signed a petition asking the town not to allow the foundation to build permanent structures anywhere on the site. (The current proposal is to construct temporary facilities and perhaps permanent ones later on the southern third of the original 37.5 acres.)
Its not a religious site, says DeFazio. [Even after Gerrys addition of roads and fencing,] its still a beautiful piece of property.
Besides, she says, that feeling isnt there anymore. It will never happen again. The world isnt the same today.
Although Fallon and Vassmer wouldnt mind seeing the site left untouched, they have no difficulty either with construction on the site.
I cant believe its 33 years later and people are still bickering about it, says Fallon. Art always said, This county has $1 million of advertising sitting right there and never did anything about it.
[Preservationists] wish they had been there in 69, adds Vassmer. But I think this will be someplace where people will want to return to.
Thats just the concern of preservationists, who fear the worlds image of an idyllic farmers field will be ruined by the Gerry Foundations plans.
Its lovely to have a spiritual site, but [the people saying that] dont have a clue of what Woodstocks about, remarks Samuelson, who sees only an increase in his business future. Alan Gerry doesnt do anything without taking everything into consideration . . . and its his land.
I dont care where they build it, adds a passionate Dudek. [Preservationists] are not paying my taxes or running my business.
Abramson, who with husband Roy Howard welcomes both Woodstock purists and the just-curious to their property every August, is more concerned about on-site construction, but she expresses it nonchalantly.
I would hope they dont [build on the site], she says. It doesnt mean Im opposed to building around the site. I think leaving the site as a shrine would really satisfy everyone and be the best solution.
And if that doesnt happen, is she expecting an influx of visitors to Vernville (named after a beloved visitor who passed away several years ago)?
I have no idea. Weve never been organized, she explains. But well be home. If anyone wants to stop by, well be here.
And, despite the varied opinions, it seems everyone hopes Gerry and his center will be here as well, bringing whatever brand of peace, love and music he can to the area.
I think its fantastic, exclaims Fallon. Isnt that what Woodstocks all about music?
And even if Woodstock itself can never be re-created, the music can at least join the peace that has remained, say these residents.
This is nothing to fight, remarks DeFazio. This is something to go with.